The first 30 minutes of JETT are amazing. Straight away, it smashes every expectation you might have of a Space Game. For one, it starts in a yurt. For two, you’re part of a fictional space program that isn’t an unconvincingly rebadged NASA.
Even the design of JETT’s titular aircraft defies convention, sporting three dorsal fins like a mutated shark, the stubby landing struts of a bull terrier, and the face of a grinning killer whale.
The civilisation that built it is similarly patchworked: at once evocative of Mongolian nomads, northern European tribes, and Native Americans, it’s also shot through with mid-20th century American optimism and the oppressive touch of the Eastern Bloc. Their Earth is on the brink. Their seas are littered with the refuse of brighter days long gone. Hope arrives in the form of the hymnwave, a mysterious signal emanating from a far-off world. An invitation, according to the prophets of a religion sprung from its discovery, to settle on shores light-years beyond and make a fresh start for humankind.
You are an anchorite, a type of religious seer, but also a hotshot pilot who’s on the scouting team of an expedition to find the source of the signal. You say goodbye to your kin, and set off for the cosmodrome in your Jett, a journey which serves as a tutorial and a survey of the ecological damage wrought on humanity’s cradle. The rhapsodic sounds, the desolate images, the sheer boldness of this opening chapter is something to behold; from tent to rocket, in equal parts scientific and spiritual, the beautiful heart and terrifying impulses of humankind are deftly summarised in a half-hour of genuine art.
Some 1001 years later, you make planetfall, and the game proper begins. This, sadly, is where JETT starts to sputter.
It quickly becomes clear that the game underpinning all of its artistic goals just isn’t very good. Aside from too few first-person interludes which advance the story and let you talk to your fellow space pilgrims, the bulk of your time is spent hopping around the nooks and oceans of an alien world in your sprightly little craft. Given that this, and not contemplating humanity’s place in the cosmos, is the real focus of the game; the Jett should feel great to fly. It does not.
Though not for lack of trying. Every now and then, it does exactly what you want it to with exhilarating, balletic grace – but it’s a skittish, fiddly little grasshopper that hugs the ground and never quite goes fast or slow enough. It can dodge, leap, jump, and pull a mean handbrake turn – but rarely satisfyingly. It behaves too inconsistently, and frustrates too often, for fleeting glimpses of its magic to ever make up for.
You can’t even enjoy it when you hit a wide patch of ocean or plain, because having to manage the heat of your scramjets (either by keeping the throttle at half-mast or darting about to collect engine-cooling ‘vapour’ from the environment) prevents you from really opening ‘er up until the last third – and even then, only for the briefest of moments.
Mission objectives tend to stay rigidly among the ‘find thing’ and ‘move thing’ variety, with the odd kolos (really big animal) encounter or scramble for shelter to break things up. That is shelter from the ‘dreadwave’, a big red glowy thing that periodically sweeps over the planet and kills you if you’re not hunkered down.
None of these challenges are particularly hard to overcome. JETT offers very little to tax the fingers or the mind. It’s mostly laborious. Go there, do that, listen to your co-pilot drone on about something or other before you get your next waypoint. The craft’s abilities evolve over time to mitigate the various annoyances designed into it, but the traversal element, which basically is the game, never really comes together.
Its scanning mechanic, lifted from the other 9000 games with scanning mechanics, is similarly afflicted. Ostensibly, it’s there to catalogue life forms and phenomena, and display useful clues about how they interact with other entities. This can be used to your advantage – for example, shock eels can be lured to ‘ghokeblooms’ which require electricity to react. It suggests an experimental puzzle element to the game’s various interlocking systems that might put you in mind of something like Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Metal Gear Solid V. Sadly, however, these interactions only become useful at key moments in the story, at which point your co-pilot who never shuts up will just explain them to you.
It’s remarkable how constantly JETT teeters on the edge of fulfilling its lofty ambitions without ever doing so. It’s a warehouse full of ‘close’ while all the cigars are stuck at Dover. Even its performance issues follow this pattern: it runs just well enough that you can tell how smoothly it should feel, but it’s plagued by microstuttering, and momentary freezes when new areas load in. Yes, this is on the next-gen version. Yes, even with the PS5’s impossibly fast SSD, which was supposed to revolutionise game design and end world hunger.
And then, after around twelve hours, it’s done. Somehow there isn’t enough game here for it to not constantly repeat itself over such a short runtime, but it paradoxically feels too quick. There’s something potentially very special here that remains frustratingly undercooked when the credits roll; a classical science fiction epic that’s almost worthy of comparison to Asimov or Bradbury, cruelly let down by the unripened game that makes its pages turn.
A mixed bag, then. On the one hand, JETT is a stirring, stunning tale of humanity’s spirit, told from the perspective of a fascinating composite culture for whom there is no distinction between scientific endeavour and religious pilgrimage.
On the other, it’s just a bit crap.
The sound design is incredible. Terrifying WHOMPS and BAUMS cut through you when danger abounds, while a brilliant score by scntfc (which is “scientific” with the vowels removed, fact fans) rounds off the soundscape and makes you feel every bit the galactic pioneer with pulsating rhythms and heart-swelling overtures. It’s one of the few elements of the game that doesn’t miss the mark.
For a game about making planetfall, JETT: The Far Shore never quite lands.
Format: PS5 (tested) / PC / PS4
Developer: Superbrothers / Pine Scented Software
Publisher: Superbrothers / Pine Scented Software
Release: Out now